Numerous e-mails from anxious readers prompts and encourages me to return to my post and to assure readers that August and September will be represented by at least two entries each!
It's pleasant to lose yourself in photos such as the one seen here, in which the grouping and body language suggests a young couple (far left) on a seaside outing in the company of one or the other's formidable mother (center) and a younger, unmarried sister (right.) A jacket and sweater draped across the back of the bench indicates the morning would have been an unseasonably cool one --- but the presence of bathers wading in the surf hints at the fact it also warmed up nicely. A wrapped box on the edge of the bench looks to be chocolates or similar sweets (a peace offering for Mother perhaps?) and sister seems to have temporarily flung aside the folded newspaper she brought along as a proxy companion.
Wishing them all well, we leave this group in their world of 1912 and trot ahead a bit to 1914 for a melody that once seemed to be everywhere during the summer season and is now but a faintly familiar strain. Certainly, I recall the song from my own childhood of the 1960's --- piped thru loudspeakers at seaside amusement parks for the benefit of patrons who would have had living memory of the tune's first appearance, and serving as comfortable "old fashioned" fun for a younger generation that was being transformed by music of quite another sort. All but forgotten today, 1914's "By the Beautiful Sea" is a surprisingly --- not risque, but decidedly bold composition, as the lyrics will reveal. Two versions are offered here --- a voiceless piano transcription, and a fine 78rpm vocalization by Ada Jones and Bobby Watkins.
"By the Beautiful Sea" - Piano
"By the Beautiful Sea" - Jones & Watkins
"Joe and Jane were always together,
said Joe to Jane, 'I love summer weather,
so let's go to that beautiful sea,
follow along -- say you're with me!'
Anything that Joe would suggest to her,
Jane would always think it was best for her,
so he'd get his Ford ---
holler 'All aboard! Gee I want to be...'
By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea,
You and I, you and I, oh how happy we'll be!
When each eave comes a-rolling in,
we will duck or swim,
and we'll float and fool around the water...
Over and under, and then up for air,
Pa is rich, Ma is rich, so now what do we care?
I love to be beside your side beside the seaside,
beside the sea, beside the beautiful sea!
Joe was quite a sport on a Sunday,
though he would eat at Child's on a Monday,
and Jane would lose her millionaire air,
and go to work marceling hair.
Every Sunday, he'd leave his wife at home,
say 'It's business honey, I've got to roam,'
then he'd miss his train, get his Ford and his Jane,
and say 'Come with me....'
There's something neatly surprising and modern at discovering that the sea romping Joe and Jane are in fact using the shore as their trysting place --- with Joe abandoning wife ("it's business, honey") to fetch his hairdresser girlfriend in his Ford, enabling the pair to head off to the seaside and lose themselves in the throng of hundreds of other Joes and Janes in similar circumstances. Then as now, there's a long, long trail a-winding...
That aside, the business of seaside dips looked to be at least as troublesome as it is today, just considerably more uncomfortable. Bathing suits ("costumes") would be rented --- health and hygiene aspects clearly not an issue --- and what horrible things they look to be! Large, clear images such as these point up the sea-water sodden heavy wool textures of most of them, which surely (especially when combined with sand) must have been torture inducing indeed.
Amusing to note, in the image above this one, that the sand was so littered with all manner of debris (albeit natural debris for the most part) that a stiff whisk broom to clear a spot on which to sit or lay seems a much needed necessity!
Akin to the experience of coming across advertisements for "Full Talking Pictures" long, long before Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer" bleated from screens, it's always startling to peruse the pages of publications from the early years of the talking picture and to be confronted with nearly as many mentions of television as the Vitaphone and Movietone systems.
Indeed, in 1929 and 1930, television was largely thought of as an innovation "just around the corner," and perhaps it would have arrived as planned and exploded as a home entertainment medium had not a myriad of technical imperfections, a suddenly terminally ill economy and, ultimately, a global war intervened.
Reported Louella Parsons in her column of 13 September 1930: "Television is coming as surely to the movies as death and taxes are sure to come to every mortal. How do I know? Simplest thing in the world. Warner Brothers are privately experimenting with a new television invention and the Fox Company and United Artists have their television lens ready for the market."
"That isn't the half of it, either. Every motion picture contract for books, plays and original stories of any importance demands the rights to television along with the talkie, color and screen privileges. At first, I scorned the report brought to me that all the big companies were stipulating that the television right belong in their bill of sale."
"'It's true,' said my informant. 'Just inquire from the film companies and find out if their big pictures are not produced with the understanding that the television rights are theirs.' Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer returned our inquiry by admitting that 'Within the Law,' 'New Moon,' 'Remote Control,' 'War Nurse,' 'Passion Flower,' 'Anna Christie,' and 'The Great Meadow' are among the many, all bought with the understanding that no other company could have the television rights to them."
"Some folks might believe that it is all a matter of form and that television is as remote as the descent of the inhabitants from Mars. But investigations are such that we are sure within another year at least, television will be as much a part of motion pictures as dialogue, sound and color in the girl revue."
Our vantage point allows us to realize that both color and "girl revue" films would be virtually exiled from the screen by the close of 1930 --- and that television, as we know it, wouldn't arrive until the 1950's --- which was, coincidentally, the same decade in which the descent of inhabitants from Mars that Parsons playfully mentioned, would seem very real as well. Odd.
It's somewhat telling that insofar as musical revues and films of the very early sound period are concerned, the element of television would be relegated either to such films as Fox's science-fiction extravaganza of 1930, "Just Imagine," or the British produced revue "Elstree Calling" of the same year, which --- as far as I can tell --- received either scant or no distribution on American shores.
As beautifully and succinctly described by the British press in early 1931:
"Elstree is no Hollywood. It is a sleepy English village, 12 miles northwest of London. Its streets give off the curious morning echoes that mark such places when a stranger walks through them early in the day. The big film studios seem rude intruders with their brazen brick and glass facade. To reach Elstree, one takes a local train out of London and gets off at a little old-fashioned station. There are no taxis and it is a wettish half-mile trudge up the road to the plant of British International Pictures, the 'big shot' company. Part of the way there is no sidewalk, so the trudger perforce takes to the road. There is no gay film colony here. The company puts no stars under contract."
"It recruits for each picture, mostly from the London stage and the player commute backwards, from and to the big town. The studios themselves -- there are nine linked together -- are almost new. The company began operations only three years ago and has been making talkies for only a year. At the outset, 'BIP' burned its fingers and since then has been making haste slowly. It got under way fast enough and got a lot of silent films ready. Then the talkies burst upon the cinema business and the new films were worthless. Operations ceased until the company, after a cautious wait, decided that the sound films were real. Then it started up again. Now it is going full tilt. Last year, 38 pictures were produced; for this year 60 are planned."
Forget any blurred muck of a print you may have seen (if you can!) for when "Elstree Calling" is seen in crisp picture and sound, with stenciled color sequences intact, it's a charming and cozy revue that's far easier to warm up to than the coldly sterile "Hollywood Revue," and perhaps easier to absorb than the queer assortment of chunks that make up "Show of Shows." To be sure, when viewed in a restored format, the sets and costumes of "Elstree" may look shabbier than we once thought --- but that's the trade off for being able to see faces and facial expressions clearly, where once were mere white blobs with dark specks where eyes and mouths resided.
Four audio fragments from "Elstree Calling" are offered here as a faint and not entirely satisfactory example of the pleasures to be found within the film itself when properly screened:
"Introduction" - Tommy Handley
"Fairy on the Clock"- Teddy Brown & Orchestra
"Tain't No Sin" - The Three Eddies
"A Lady's Maid Is Always in the Know" - The Andre Charlot Girls
I don't often dwell upon early radio product within these pages, and that's simply for two reasons. The first being that not much of it survives, and what does survive is seldom in circulation in anything but dreadful to barely acceptable audio quality. Secondly, I'm largely unfamiliar with and dazed by early radio as much as I'm awed by friends who can rattle off long defunct station names, call-letters and locations with the same ease with which I can do likewise with motion picture product. Perhaps it's a cerebral safeguard of some sort to shut down and deny any additional realm of unimportant trivia beyond the mental shelf-space already reserved for any one trivial topic?
All that likely reads as absurdly as it sounds, but if nothing else you'll forgive me for offering scant information about the following radio fragment from 1931 --- an early infomercial of sorts, disguised as entertainment, for the "Radio and Television Institute" -- a learn-by-mail gig.
While entertaining as heck, it's sobering to note that advertisements for this establishment can be found by the hundreds (if not hundreds and hundreds) in newspapers all across the country during the depths of the Depression, tossed into the standard classified "Help Wanted" section then being hungrily scoured by men in dire straits. Usually worded to imply that anywhere from one to four men were needed to fill a ready and waiting position in the "radio, television and talking movie" industry (when in fact anyone with ready coin would be accepted) it's all simply sad.
See if you can't listen to this carefully crafted radio advertisement without scanning for paper, envelope and stamp by the time the fourteen minute transcribed broadcast concludes! (Only "normal, ambitious" men need apply.)
"The Radio & Television Institute Revue" (1931)
A fleeting glance at the poster at right for the short domestic comedy "Snookums Disappears" suggests a product of the Biograph period --- so stiff and flat the artwork, but as it turns out the Snookums in question disappeared on film in 1927, and the talented youngster who portrayed him would disappear permanently in 1933, the young victim of illness at aged nine.
A press release appearing in newspapers in August of 1926 explains the series of short comedies far better than I could hope to:
"The Newlyweds and Their Baby," a new series of comedies taken from the comic newspaper strip by George McManus, so well known to all. This trip marks McManus' first personal entry into the motion picture field, and event which film producers have been seeking for more than ten years. The comedy series is being made from the comic strip cartoons by the Stern Brothers, and up to the present time the cartoonist has been unable to take an active hand in the screening of these comedies, due to the pressure of his activities with the King Feature Syndicate."
"It was only after McManus saw the exceptional comedies turned out by the Sterns from the Buster Brown comic cartoons that he turned an attentive ear to the request of Julius and Abe Stern. A survey of Universal's wide distribution facilities and the assurance that the comedies made from his cartoons would get the best possible presentation, helped to turn the scale in favor of the Sterns, who release through Universal."
In production and release between 1926 and 1928, with such titles as "Fishing Snookums," "The Newlyweds and Their Baby in Quarantine," "The Newlywed's Success," "Happy Days," and the aforementioned "Snookums Disappears," the
beaming child with forward-looking hair-do was one Lawrence David "Sunny" McKeen, Jr. who was plucked from infantile obscurity to become something of a national darling and instantly recognizable figure during the period in which the films were released.
Photographed posing with everyone from "Uncle" Carl Laemmle, to sports figures and politicians, the child was a natural actor according to his mother, Mrs. Lawrence McKeen, in numerous press released disguised as intimate interviews, many of which transposed the child's nickname of "Sunny" to "Sonny:"
"In every mail, we get thousands of letters from parents all the world over asking how we trained Sonny for the films. We have to answer that we did not 'train' him. We only cared for him as every baby should be cared for -- not in an ultra scientific manner but with love tempered by intelligence and common sense."
"What he does on the screen he does through love of his parents. I hope this does not sound too sentimental for it is true. I know there are parents who scold or spank their children. Sonny doesn't know what either means."
A blood disorder of some sort --- likely the kind which could be treated today, would claim the child in 1933 and his films, coming as they did on the cusp of silence to sound, would seem as distant to the world of 1933 as they do to us today.
Casual research indicates few if any of the entries in "The Newlyweds and Their Baby" series exist today --- but being a natural product for the rental and home 16mm market, probably a good many more are extant than archive databases would suggest.
A lovingly composed and informative website prepared by surviving members of the McKeen family is more than worth a visit and your time. Beautifully sentimental, earnest and rightfully making no apologies for either, the web site can be found via this link.
Farewell, little feller. Will still hardly know ye.
I suspect anyone reading these pages has heard the late 1920's standard "Doin' the Raccoon" often enough to at least hum the melody if not exactly recite the lyrics.
One of the better renditions of the tune --- for there were many of them, most mediocre and a few awful, was a surprising offering from the recording studio of the grand old man, Thomas Edison --- a name and product not usually associated with keeping atop of trends. While it's no surprise then that the 1928 recording arrived a bit late in the game as compared to other recordings of the tune, it is surprising to discover that this apparently simple and somewhat idiotic college fad was hardly a cheap fling --- with raccoon coats costing a very dear $395 in late 1920's funds! No wonder the fashion seeking fellows were urged to "date a girl and hurry her downtown to some big furrier" as opposed to dipping into their own flannels to outlay for this decided extravagance!
"Doin' the Raccoon" - (1928) - Billy Murray and the Seven Blue Babies
The dime-store "Harmony" label of 78rpm discs always yields interesting recordings --- for while they're often not especially good and often badly recorded, they are --- almost without exception, remarkably different than the familiar arrangements utilized on recordings for Victor, Columbia and Brunswick. A winner on all counts, however, is this Harmony disc of two tunes from 1929's "The Broadway Melody, vocalized with the sort of precise enunciation that seems a product of an earlier day, by one Jack Hart, accompanied by Sam Lanin's Orchestra.
"The Broadway Melody" and "You Were Meant For Me" - Jack Hart & Sam Lanin's Orchestra
The 1929 Fox musical "Words and Music," now deemed a lost film, has figured elsewhere in these pages before, but I'm now pleased to be able to present you with the grand and rare opportunity to hear an actual audio extract from the film, via the generosity of reader Gary Scott.
As with many Fox films of the period, prints were made available to theaters in two sound formats -- sound on film, and sound on disc for those theaters solely wired for the Vitaphone system.
Ironic then that it would be the competing system that would allow for anything to survive of this 1929 film, in much the same way that audio fragments from the equally lost (yet far more lamented in these quarters) "Fox Movietone Follies of 1929" manage to remain with us today.
This extract, in which the somewhat meandering melody "Too Wonderful For Words" can be heard performed by a baritone (precisely whom is difficult to determine, unless a reader might recognize the voice?) and reprised by the Fox chorus, isn't a shining moment of 1929 film music by any means, nor representative of the film as a whole (certainly, it suggests nothing of the light-hearted campus frolic "Words and Music" was described as) but, as some nameless soul long ago scrawled upon the synchro-disc for the film in pencil, it is... at the very least... "a good song.
"Too Wonderful For Words" - From "Words and Music" (1929)
The sumptuous publicity artwork for Colleen Moore's 1926 film "Twinkletoes," has naught to do with the next two audio offerings save to provide suitable visual diversity while listening to the languid --- faintly exotic strains of "When Buddha Smiles," long a personal favorite tune of mine. Here, we have it in its original very early 1920's incarnation --- not performed by Paul Whiteman as is usually the case, but by Rudy Weidoft's Californians. Finer than fine, this.
"When Buddha Smiles" (1921)
Buddha continued to smile well into the 1930's for a Benny Goodman recording, but I believe this dreamy, drifting and supremely lovely tune's finest moment to have arrived in 1930 when it met with Gus Arnheim & His Orchestra and about fifteen writhing and cavorting young ladies clad in snake-patterned tights at Hollywood's Cocoanut Grove nightclub for a live performance captured on film by Tiffany Studios' always-on-the-spot "Voice of Hollywood" cameras for inclusion in one of their countless reels of the period.
"When Buddha Smiles" (1930) - Gus Arnheim & His Orchestra (and snake dancers!)
Snakes and a snake dance of another sort was tossed into the mix that was Fox's 1930 revue "Happy Days," where "Snake Hips" was vocalized by Sharon Lynn and danced to, memorably so, by Ann Pennington.
Such is the best introduction I could come up with for the following audio oddity, requested some time back by a reader who enjoyed the Roach studio dubbing disc offered in a much earlier post for "Honolulu Baby," from the 1934 Laurel and Hardy comedy "Sons of the Desert."
Here, Sharon Lynn is heard warbling the intentionally absurd "Won't You Be My Lovey Dovey" -- a sly parody of the sort of wild west dance-hall tune that seemed to crop up in any number of western films, where the roughest cut-throats imaginable would be temporarily lulled into blissful quiet by a silk ruffle adorned sweetie (everyone's "sweetie," usually) who could effortless halt the flow of bullets and broken whiskey bottles with little or no effort.
It's fun to hear the familiar tune broken free of ambient chatter and cutaway dialogue inserts, and in a bit longer a form than we're used to, for the tune was snipped a bit to fit into the confines of the masterfully paced comedy epic. Enjoy!
"Won't You Be My Lovey Dovey?" - Sharon Lynn
A publicity item from February of 1930:
"'The March of Time' is MGM's temporary title for their new revue which will have three sections, exploiting the entertainment ideas of 'Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.' The 'Yesterday' section is now being completed, with Weber and Fields, DeWolf Hopper, Louis Mann, William Collier, Fay Templeton, Barney Fagan and Josephine Sabel."
In production between August of 1929 and Spring of 1930, Metro's "The March of Time" could quite possibly be the best early musical never to reach the screen. First announced as "The Hollywood Revue of 1930" and alluded to in some publicity releases as "Just Kids" and "Old Timer's Revue" (presumably before the modern and futuristic elements were added) it's the "Yesterday" portion of the film that strikes me as the saddest of losses, for here we would have had priceless documentation of performers of an earlier day --- and re-creation of production style that was still very much a living memory by both the participants and at least a portion of the intended audience alike.
From "Hollywood Sights and Sounds" - 8 January 1930
"Talking pictures, with their irresistible lure to stage actors, have given the movies new blood, which many critics long held to be their greatest need. And strangely, part of that new blood, as represented in a group of nine stage veterans now playing in MGM's screen revue, is very old. It has, in fact, a total combined age of some 570 years. Here again are gathered, for the first time in years, these old troupers who, like their younger brethren of the footlights, have heeded the talkie call."
"There stands Barney Fagan (right, composer of 1885's 'Lawn Tennis') aged eighty, erect, clean-cut and genial despite his years. He became famous as a dancing comedian and even today is a nifty stepper."
"Over here, is Josephine Sabel (left) the original 'coon-shouter,' she who made the famous 'There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight' a hit during the war of 1898. She's sixty-four. She chats with Fay Templeton,
(right, on cover of 1900 sheet music) who at sixty-three left retirement for Hollywood."
"And Joe Weber and Lew Fields (left) are there too, renowned inseparables from boyhood until their memorable break early in the century. Long since re-united, both are snowy-haired now." (And both sixty-three in 1930.)
"Louis Mann, barely fifty-nine, dialect-master, comic and student... De Wolf Hooper, tall, distinguished patrician. William Collier, Sr., already a talkie convert, rounds out the group with Marie Dressler --- Marie who already has scored in talkies, who entered films after long glory on the stage, in the famous 'Tillie's Punctured Romance' of 1914. Old-timers all, but what old-timers!"
Imagine the intermingled excitement, fear, exhilaration and a thousand other emotions that must have flitted through these legendary entertainers' collective minds as they gathered to perform and participate in melodies of their youth, their earliest successes and happiest days --- all to be captured, so they thought, on this new medium of talking film --- a medium that would have seemed utter science fiction to all of them when they first trod upon the vaudeville stage. In various states of age and well-being in 1930, surely the eldest participants viewed this as their final contribution to the performing world they so loved -- and their last curtain call. One that would be seen by untold thousands --- a curtain call without end. A performer's dream.
As happens with most notions too beautiful to be born and survive, Metro's "March of Time" would be unceremoniously halted and abandoned, and the studio would try --- for the next three or so years, to utilize every scrap of footage filmed by inserting them either with some degree of care (as in 1933's feature length "Broadway to Hollywood") or gruffly and sloppily into two-reel featurettes, where the older footage would either go unnoticed, or baffle or ultimately intrigue generations of audiences and film buffs.
Amazingly, perhaps the supreme moment of "The March of Time" --- the "Father Time" finale, in which all nine performers detailed in the above press release are gathered together --- is still with us, but elusive. (Originally included in the mid-point of 1933's "Broadway to Hollywood," this sequence is curiously absent from most circulating prints and TCM's broadcast version of the feature.) Obviously trimmed from the original length in terms of content with all close-shots of performers removed, what we're left with is still priceless.
The curtains part to reveal a large gathering upon a semi-circular steep stairway --- the golden stairway of time --- with a huge shadowy figure of a cloaked Father Time looming above it all, hour glass in one hand --- scythe in other. As the musical accompaniment begins proper, the first to descend the stairway (for no good reason other than "why not?") are fur-clad cave-women.
The lyrics as vocalized are nearly impossible to ascertain, but there are references to "down thru all the ages, time marches along..." and "from the good old days, in the good old way," which segues into "At A Georgia Camp Meeting" of 1897 and dancers dressed in the style of that day, precariously cake-walk/hopping down the stairs.
A bit of "Hiawatha: A Summer Idyl" (1903) is head next, as a troupe of native Indian costumed maidens work their way downwards in precision step in a cloud of fringes and feathered head-dress.
Appearing at top center of the staircase is the woman who performed during "the war of 1898," Josephine Sabel --- in a brief bit of a tune that's wafted throughout these pages for a long time now, "Bedelia," (cue Irish costumed chorus members!) but this quickly segues into a chorus of the song she introduced, "A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight," which she performs with verve --- the strident rhythm matched by the appearance of Gay '90's "Bowery" b'hoys and goils --- crooked arms, checkered hobble skirts, bottle-green tight jackets and jaunty caps. Sabel concludes the chorus with upraised arm and hand which she playfully boxes at the air while intoning "Hey, Hey!" --- a gesture of another day, time and place --- here captured in 1930.
Rising from the top of the stairs, supported on either side by two chorus girls is the frail (and eighty) Barney Fagan who, understandably doesn't navigate his way down the stairway as Josephine Sabel gamely did.
The melody heard here is 1900's "My Blushin' Rosie," which had definite connections to Weber & Fields and Fay Templeton as well --- and, presumably Fagan himself, who can be faintly heard vocalizing the tune --- with an indescribable quality to his performance that seems part stifled sob and part chortle. Either way, it fits the moment brilliantly and there's something about that subdued sob that seems to sum it all up:
"Rosie, you are my posie,
You are my heart's bouquet...
Come on down right in the moonlight,
There's something sweet, love,
I want to say...
Your honey boy am waitin',
those ruby lips to greet,
Don't be so captivatin'
Ma blushin' Rosie,
Ma posie sweet."
It's in the final moment --- indeed, the final scant few seconds of the whole sequence that all nine performers -- the "old timers" --- can be glimpsed. Barney Fagan at the top of the stairway and, four each entering from stage left and right and meeting center --- from left to right, Louis Mann, De Wolf Hooper, Marie Dressler, Joe Weber, Lew Fields, Josephine Sabel, William Collier Sr., and Fay Templeton. As the screen clouds with a burst of flame and the mists of time shrouding all, the gentlemen all remove their hats and raise them in tribute to the unseen audience of 1930 that would never exist --- and, in effect to us.
All then march downwards into the inky blackness of time where they reside to this day. Heartbreaking. Exhilarating. Sweetly painful. Deathless.The March of Time Goes On...
An assortment of musical elements as featured in this sequence, some new to these pages --- others linked from the earlier blog entries in which they first appeared:
"At A Georgia Camp Meeting" (1919) The New York Military Band
"At A Georgia Camp Meeting" (Modern Orchestral Period Re-Creation)
"Hiawatha: A Summer Idyl" (1904) The Columbia Orchestra
"A Musical Joke on 'Bedelia'" (1904) The Sousa Band
"A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" - Mechanical Music Box
"My Blushin' Rosie" (Al Jolson)
Until Next Time!
Josephine Sabel, circa 1895
Lawrence "Sunny" McKeen, Jr. - "Snookums" - circa 1927
"Fishing Snookums"- Charleroi, Pennsylvania - June 1927
Television Explained - 28 June 1930
Long before "Blockheads"- October 1929
Helena, Montana - December 1929
"I know what every linen costs and every bit of lace,
A lady's maid is always in the know.
I know how much it costs to keep my lady's face in place,
And what it is that makes her wrinkles go.
I know the family quarrels, and I heal them day by day,
And I know the little things that make the master go astray.
And I know who is the mistress when --
The mistress is away!
A lady's maid is always in the know!"